Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Review of The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly



Be careful going up the stair.
Someone's left their shadow there.


An orphan. A mystery. An old house with a grumpy housekeeper. Something that shouldn't be able to talk, but can. Snow. Supernatural beings with evil intent. Looking for a Christmas present for an intelligent youngster? Look no further, but buy this early, because you're going to want to read it a couple of times yourself before wrapping it – once very quickly, to find out what happens next, and then more slowly, to savour the prose, the tension, the winter descriptions, the world-building. Allegedly this is a children's book, and I mean children's, not YA. But then so was Masefield's The Midnight Folk and I still re-read that….

I suppose its intended audience shows most clearly in the linear narrative; there is only one point-of-view character, the girl Seren, and we are with her throughout, whereas in Fisher's YA novels, there are liable to be two or three narrative threads going on at any one time, and we shift between them. The intended audience, however, makes no odds to the depth of character; people in a Fisher novel are never two-dimensional or easily pigeonholed. Seren, the protagonist, is as spiky and independent as most of Fisher's young heroines, and her confederate the Crow is even more so – their tart, combative exchanges are a joy and the final revelation of his identity beautifully apt.

Nor does the targeted age-group result in any noticeable simplification of the vocabulary; Fisher doesn't believe in talking down to readers. The book is set in the Victorian past where carriages still coexist with railways, and life in the house itself harks back yet further:
Immediately Seren jumped from her chair and ran to the sideboard. It was full of small brown drawers marked with old-fashioned labels. Barley Sugar, Cocoa and Chocolate, All Sorts of Seeds, Isinglass Shavings, Heartsease. She pulled them open hastily. They contained spicy mixtures smelling sharp and pungent, but none of them were what she wanted. Then on a shelf she saw a small flask labelled Oil of Cloves.
The labels are perfect for evoking a past time (who could resist All Sorts of Seeds?) but if child readers want to know what isinglass or heartsease are, they can go and find out. It's part of the experience, their own interaction with mystery. I should think child readers would probably be intrigued by the subtle time indicators – dresses bought as material and made up at home, dedicated bathrooms that are a novelty suggestive of considerable wealth. They would also be enchanted by the wintry atmosphere (I sometimes wonder if there is any limit to the number of ways Fisher can conjure up cold; probably not). And they would surely love the textual illustrations – crows perched on the chapter headings, stars scattered across the corners of pages. Though I may say that on my first reading, I failed to notice these, because I was too busy speed-reading, being wild to discover how it turned out.
Tags: book reviews, catherine fisher, children's books, novels
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